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Jonathan Kozol talks about contemporary segregation

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Jonathan Kozol's mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore.

The dignity and measured tenor of the prose in his new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America belie the passion of his battle against public schools that are as racially segregated now as they were in 1968 and are growing more separate and unequal by the minute.

Kozol appraises President George W. Bush's attempt at school reform, No Child Left Behind, with the same amount of contempt he holds for the corporatization of public schools.

Over the course of five years, Kozol visited 60 schools in 11 states preparing for the book. He found that the proportion of black children now attending integrated schools was lower than at any time since 1968, and that most black and Hispanic children in American cities attend schools where they make up 95 to 99 percent of the school population.

Even more disturbing, he found that while the federal government has instituted policy that demands black and Hispanic students in segregated inner city schools raise their standardized test scores or be penalized with withdrawal of federal funding, the level of funding per pupil in most of those schools is half what their peers in segregated suburban white schools receive.

Kozol came of age at the pinnacle of the civil rights movement, 1964 to 1965, and traded his Harvard Square address to become a teacher in Boston's inner city schools. His 1967 book, Death at an Early, an account of his first year as a teacher, won the 1968 National Book Award. Since then, he has published 12 other books on education and poverty in America, including Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, winner of the Robert F. Kennedy book award in 1989, and Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1996.

Most recently, he has enjoyed the dubious pleasure of being named number nine in Bernard Goldberg's 100 People Who Are Screwing up America for being an "America basher."

The Independent caught up with Kozol at his rural Massachusetts home before he took off on an 18-city book tour, including a Sept. 20 appearance in Denver.

Indy: You refer to the separation of races in American public schools as an apartheid system, implying not a natural course of events but enforced segregation and discrimination. Can you explain?

Kozol: First of all, apartheid is not an accident. It's not like bad weather conditions that just happen. It's created by banking and real estate interests which have unscrupulously red-lined communities, even though that is technically illegal, but they get away with it anyway. It's also created by local zoning practices.

The fact of the matter is that apartheid schooling in America was drastically reduced during the 30 years after Brown v Board of Education. There was great success at desegregating schools through the late 1980s and during that period it was not by coincidence that when millions of black and latino Americans were going to the same good schools that white kids attended, the gap in test scores between minority and white children diminished notably.

Since 1990 when the U.S. Supreme Court under, I'm sad to say, the last Justice William Rehnquist, began to rip apart the enforcement of Brown, schools have skyrocketed back into hyper-segregation. At the present, the portion of black kids in America that go to segregated schools is the same percentage as in 1968. In New York, seven out of eight black children go to essentially all black schools.

Where an apartheid school system was legally enforced in Mississippi 50 years ago, a socially and residentially enforced apartheid is in effect in most of our major cities now.

Indy: And what has been the impact of this on the quality of education in America?

Kozol: As a result, the most dedicated administrators and principals have had to give up the dream of Brown, of integrated schools and are now trying to do what Plessy v. Ferguson mandated in the late 1890s -- separate but equal education for our children.

What happened is the education experts, by and large, refuse to confront this issue of racial segregation. Instead they're very busy doing Plessy, coming up with a new 7-point plan to turn this thing around.

I keep seeing cover headlines in magazines: "Seven Ways to Make Inner City Schools Work." As if a segregated school was not a moral sin but a sluggish automobile engine. They use this mechanistic language, as if with the right recipe we could have segregated but equal schools. Or the newest trend, segregated schools with tougher discipline and more exams. Or segregated schools with lots of upbeat slogans and incantations posted on the walls ...

Indy: Can you give an example?

Kozol: I walk into a school and on the wall I see a big sign: If it is to be, it's up to me. This is like autohypnosis of the children as a substitute for equality.

White conservatives like to visit schools and see this because if 'it's up to me', then that means it isn't up to white society to change things. It's just a matter of will power on the part of these 'sluggish' minorities.

Well, I won't play that gave anymore. My book isn't a recipe for how to fix our schools with clever new ideas. I want to see the abolition of segregated schools. They never were equal in the last century and they never will be in the century ahead. It's the oldest failed experiment in U.S. social history.

Indy: You say in your book that despite the federal government's reports of progress, the public education system is actually regressing. How?

Kozol: By convenient defect of vision, political leaders and even education writers refuse to face the fact of the failed apartheid school system, and instead come up with a new plan to pump the test scores. Usually when they pump the scores up a few points, we find out five years later that it was just a blip.

The best teachers that I know come into these schools that need them and only last two or three years. Some of them tell me they decided to teach because they read one of my books; they go in inspired. Then suddenly they find out that their job is to turn little latino and black children into little robotic test takers. If they have questions to ask you, you can't indulge them. So the balance of these teachers quit after two years. They didn't come into education to indoctrinate children of color to be the obedient servants of rich children who are learning to ask real questions."

The president argues that his pathological testing agenda is actually working, and you can always find a blip in the scores, but these gains don't last. By the time these kids are through elementary school and middle school and their schools claim they've done great on the tests, by 12th grade, these kids from the poorest schools are reading and writing at the level of the average rich 7th grader.

It's a deadly lie and an irreversible crime. When we steal someone's childhood we can't ever return it.

Indy: What do you say to those who argue that school vouchers will offer poor families a chance to get their children a better, more equal education?

Kozol: Vouchers are the single worst, most dangerous idea introduced into education policy in the 40 years since I became a teacher. They will virtually guarantee an even deeper segregation of our society. They rob the public schools and diminish the political backing that we need to finance public education.

Nobody is seriously proposing giving vouchers to poor black inner city students in Denver to send them to the best suburban white schools. At best, they'll allow them to go to segregated, profit-making schools in their own neighborhoods.

A former Secretary of Education once said to me (we were testifying before a Senate committee), "John, all we want to do is give these poor kids the chance to attend the good schools that you and I attended. I said, "If you're planning to give $30,000 vouchers to the inner city kids of Washington to attend Andover like George W. Bush, then I'll become a Republican."

I know some old hippies out in Colorado and some of them are nave enough to think they favor vouchers, because they could run a real neat wheat germ school, a lovely school where kids just do their own thing. They're nave. If vouchers can be used for pedagogically romantic hippies, they can also be sued by Pat Robertson, by David Duke.

Some black separatists have fallen into the same trap. They say, hey, we don't need desegregation, we won't spoil any garden parties over in your pretty community, just give us some vouchers and we'll run our own segregated school over here. Just give us a little money so we can make our building pretty. These advocates seem blind to the fact that if vouchers can go to an African American school, they can also go to an Asian American school, a Jewish American school. Vouchers will tear apart the social fabric of America.

Indy: You take issue with a statement of President Bush's regarding education reform: "I went to Washington to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations. It's working. It's making a difference." Why are you so offended by this?

Kozol: The president also likes to say, "All children can learn." He keeps saying that tirelessly, though he apparently doesn't think they can learn well enough to go to white schools where they might pollute the education of the privileged.

The president's accusation of soft bigotry, the arrogance of [him] saying to teachers that if they don't pump up the test scores, it must be the result of low expectations, to accuse the teachers on the front lines of bigotry -- this from a president who hasn't said one word about segregation in America and American schools during his entire term -- is unconscionable.

Indy: Inequality in America has been underscored by the hurricane disaster in New Orleans recently. Will this mobilize people to be more concerned about the issues raised in your book or will it further marginalize these kids who are displaced to schools across America, at least temporarily?

Kozol: My own belief is that the nation will get over its embarrassment about New Orleans very quickly.

The only thing that would ever mobilize Americans to rise up in masses against segregated and unequal schooling and segregated and unequal residential neighborhoods would be a tremendous upsurge of ethical indignation on the part of millions of people, especially young people, children and teachers. These idealistic young teachers I meet are very aware of what's going on. Nobody can tell them the schools are desegregated.

Indy: I heard a story recently about a local school district that has adopted a business model that identifies students as stakeholders, and that in some classrooms art has been removed from the bulletin boards and replaced with bar graphs measuring progress in standardized tests.

Kozol: That is a classic example of the corporate invasion of the classroom.

It breaks my heart to see how many principals are forced to buy into this by corporate interests in the schools. The principal is called the building manager, the kid who empties the waste basket is the waste basket manager.

We're indoctrinating children in corporate mentality as if their only function in life is to grow up and serve the American economy. As if children are embryonic workers, little pint-sized assets. In many schools now they are actually referred to as "products."

No good teacher who believes that children have any value to begin with would ever use such language voluntarily. The best teachers I know, young idealists who come into the system, get stomach pains from this stuff and from the testing mania.

These so-called reformers claim that testing children to death is the new civil rights movement. They actually call it the civil rights movement. Well, I was in the real civil rights movement. I went to jail three times and I'm proud of it. I heard Dr. King speak and he didn't say, "I have a dream that one day we will dress our black babies in uniforms and march 'em around the school like protomilitary robots and drill them all year long for their examinations."

Dr. King said, and it's written on the walls of many of the segregated schools named after him, "I have a dream that one day ... the sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood."

Kathyrn Eastburn

capsule

Jonathan Kozol, speaking at the Denver Press Club

Tuesday, Sept. 20, noon

1330 Glenarm Place, Denver

Cost: $17 for Press Club members, $20 for non-members; call 303/571-5260 for a reservation.

capsule

Jonathan Kozol, signing and reading from The Shame of the Nation

Tuesday, Sept. 20, 7:30 p.m.; tickets for a place in line at the signing available at 6:30.

Tattered Cover Book Store, 1628 16th St., Denver

Free; call 303/436-1070.

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